South Asia region is particularly vulnerable to climate-induced water scarcity. One of the key impacts of climate change of South Asian countries like Pakistan is increased variability in precipitation patterns, with some regions experiencing more frequent and intense rainfall events while others facing prolonged droughts.
Climate-induced water scarcity is a growing problem worldwide, with climate change leading to more frequent and severe droughts as well as flooding. Numerous countries across the globe, such as Australia, the Middle East (Qatar, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates), Western Europe, and Asia (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), have experienced significant flooding in the recent years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report predicts an increase in wet and dry events due to increasing ambient air temperature. The report documents dry extremes (over Southwestern Australia, Southwestern North America, South Africa, Mediterranean, and South Asia) and the wet (more intense precipitation) across most countries. The extreme daily precipitation events are projected to increase by about 7 percent for every 1 degree Celsius (1°C) of global warming. Water stored in glaciers and snow cover is projected to further decline over the course of the century, thus reducing water availability during warm and dry periods in the regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world’s population currently lives.1
Pakistan’s National Water Policy (NWP) was approved in 2018 with 33 objectives covering almost all important water use sectors. It provides general principles and guidelines to develop, manage and better govern the water sector. Under the overall umbrella of the NWP, the provinces were to develop their own polices and guidelines suited to their specific needs.
South Asia region is particularly vulnerable to climate-induced water scarcity. One of the key impacts of climate change of South Asian countries like Pakistan is increased variability in the precipitation patterns, with some regions experiencing more frequent and intense rainfall events while others facing prolonged droughts.
Inspite of being a climate hotspot country, climate change is least understood in Pakistan. It affects the water regime in complex ways–the unpredictable rainfall patterns, shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods and droughts are making water the most vulnerable sector. Its frequent exposure to natural hazards, and significant dependence on monsoon rainfall and the glacier-fed Indus Basin make it vulnerable to climate change. The country’s socioeconomic circumstances further augment its vulnerability to projected temperature increase, more variable erratic rainfall patterns, and greater risk of floods and droughts. As a result, the wet seasons are becoming more wet and dry seasons drier. The most recent example is the 2022 floods in Pakistan which left one-third of the country under water, affecting 33 million people downstream of Indus Basin, while upstream was facing a water scarce condition with 20% less average annual rainfall. The country lost more than 55 million acre-feet (MAF) of water, about four times the total storage capacity of the country.
Presently, the country is facing a number of quantitative and qualitative issues in the water sector. These issues are increasing with time due to looming climate change and rising water demand of an ever-increasing population.
Judged by all water scarcity indicators, Pakistan has become a water scarce country.2 This has serious implications as water resources and climate change not only affect agriculture, but also affect urban centers, industry, human health and the entire ecosystem. As a result, climate change and water have become the most important non-conventional security threats.
To address the problem of climate-induced water scarcity in the country, several measures can be taken. These include increasing storage through the construction of large, medium and small dams where possible, improving water management in all sectors of water use and, above all, improving water governance. The government and civil society must work together to address this issue, and international support and collaboration are essential to finding sustainable solutions.
Climate Change and the United Nations Water Conference
The General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution dated December 20, 2018 for a midterm comprehensive review of the implementation of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2028. Accordingly, the UN-Water is committed to provide its fullest support to continue the broad initiatives for effective water resources management worldwide.
The UN Water Conference held in March 2023 adopted a new strategy for water and climate action. The strategy calls for a more integrated approach to water and climate management, and for increased investment in water-related adaptation and mitigation measures.
The UN Water Conference held in March 2023 adopted a new strategy for water and climate action. The strategy calls for a more integrated approach to water and climate management, and for increased investment in water-related adaptation and mitigation measures. The strategy also emphasizes the need to ensure that water-related policies and programs are equitable and inclusive, and that they take into account the needs of all people, including women, children, and people with disabilities. The strategy is a significant step forward in the global effort to address the water-climate nexus. It provides a roadmap for countries to work together and build a more sustainable future for all.
Being alive to the looming threats to water resources, all the above strategic priorities were included, by and large, in the National Water Policy (NWP) 2018 and Climate Change Policy 2012, updated in 2021. What we need are workable action plans to face the challenges. This brief provides an insight into the water governance aspects of climate-induced water scarcity.
The desire to implement appropriate water pricing policy will be a driving force towards real-time groundwater monitoring, water accounting, and regulatory framework for which legal and technical instruments, rules and regulations would need to be developed to help implement water pricing mechanism.
The Need for Enhancing Water Governance
One of the most important issues in water sector is the sub-optimal performance of the governance. In fact, it is the root cause of the poor performance of all the development sectors that use water. It is mainly due to the lack of proper understanding of water governance, which is generally perceived as a policy, act, framework or an institution in isolation. Whereas governance is a set of policies, rules, acts, regulatory framework, strategies, and effective institutions complementing each other and more importantly, seen through active involvement of the end users. From the perspective of water security, governance offers more integrated approaches compared to the existing isolated approaches, addressing the need of each and every stakeholder. While climate change and water are closely interlinked, it is not surprising to see that there are many commonalities in the climate change and national water policies. However, the fact remains that while the custodians of both policies are different, there is hardly any formal mechanism that exists for the coordination of activities.
Simple development of policies, acts and regulatory framework is meaningless without appropriate well developed complementary plans, strategies, and institutions to implement with proper monitoring and evaluation mechanism. Moreover, there is a disconnect between the policymakers and implementers, both in visualization and approach to implement. This disconnect is the main hindrance in transforming policies into actions. Take the example of infrastructural development in Islamabad. The city is expanding unsustainability at the cost of ecosystem deterioration. As a result, the city observed one of the worst urban flooding in 2021. There is no mechanism of monitoring to know whether the principles and guidelines provided in the climate change and national water policies are being followed or not. Similarly, all the cities and towns are expanding unsustainably by grabbing highly productive agriculture lands due to which not only the culturable land is shrinking, but the natural recharge to the groundwater is also reducing. As a result, the water table is depleting in almost all urban centers.
Pakistan’s National Water Policy (NWP) was approved in 2018 with 33 objectives covering almost all important water-use sectors. It provides general principles and guidelines to develop, manage and better govern the water sector. Under the overall umbrella of the NWP, the provinces were to develop their own polices and guidelines suited to their specific needs. So far, only Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have been able to develop their policies; however, draft water policies of Sindh and Balochistan have been developed but not yet approved.
Along with the NWP, Pakistan’s Water Charter was also signed by the then Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the four provinces. In the Water Charter, the federal and provincial leaders have shown their commitment in the following words:
“The Charter is a call to action and the declaration of a water emergency. We must look beyond our differences and come together as a nation to rise to the challenge that is before us. We have done so before, and we can do it again. We will seize the day and secure our collective future. This is our promise to the coming generations.”
The above is a high-level commitment by almost all the mainstream political parties. However, after almost five years, when we look at the ground reality, apparently no significant actions have been taken at the national or provincial levels in the spirit of the above declaration.
After the 18th amendment in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, water is a devolved subject. However, major focus of the provinces has been on water-related infrastructure and relatively less or no focus on water governance such as developing appropriate crop zoning, development of real-time groundwater monitoring system and groundwater regulatory framework, water accounting, and developing sustainable water pricing mechanism, etc.
Water pricing in all water-use sectors is a classic example of poor water governance. Water is still considered a social good rather than an economic good with the consequent result that it has become an almost free commodity. In the agriculture sector, per acre water charges (abiana) for the whole year water supply are so small and equal to the price of a small size burger. Many studies show that even the cost of abiana collection is higher than the abiana collected–what to talk about the recovery of operation and maintenance costs. Similar is the case for the domestic and industrial sectors. In the absence of any groundwater regulatory framework, anyone can install any number of tube wells of any size at any depth and can pump any amount of water. As a result, the groundwater is depleting in almost all canal commands and in all urban centers.3 Being a free resource with tremendous economic benefits, the elite class captures it wherever they can. Inequity in access to resources and ultimate wasteful attitude towards its use are other implications. The desire to implement appropriate water pricing policy will be a driving force towards real-time groundwater monitoring, water accounting, and regulatory framework for which legal and technical instruments, rules and regulations would need to be developed to help implement water pricing mechanism.
It is stressed that these policies only provide guiding principles. For example, NWP says that “polluter pays principle will be applied.” This simple statement raises numerous questions like who will identify the polluters or is there any regular monitoring mechanism to see who is polluting and to what extent? Similarly, principles of 100% metering (in the domestic sector) and introduction of appropriate pricing have been provided. Again, questions arise on who will do it, how and by what time? Is there any independent organization to monitor and evaluate the progress of activities given in these policies? In the case of development of groundwater regulatory framework, is the actual potential of groundwater known? And, is there any real-time groundwater monitoring system in place to know groundwater variability over time and space? Based on groundwater quantity and quality, are the bright spots or hotspots known? Therefore, in the absence of any real-time monitoring mechanism, groundwater regulatory framework cannot be implemented in true letter and spirit.
In the NWP, a mechanism has been provided in the form of a National Water Council (NWC) to be chaired by the Prime Minister and a Steering Committee (SC) to be chaired by Minister for the Ministry of Water Resources. The NWC is to meet once a year whereas SC at least twice a year; however, during the last five years, only one meeting of the NWC and two meetings of the SC could be held. A country which is facing complex water challenges such as frequent and concurrent droughts and floods, declining per capita water availability, groundwater depletion, water quality and ecosystem deterioration, reduction in crop yields and water productivity cannot afford to go with the paradigm of “business as usual.” It needs to redefine its priorities and invest in building human and institutional capacities, set up a proper monitoring and evaluation mechanism at the federal and provincial levels.
To achieve the objectives of the NWP, recently Ministry of Water Resources through Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) and its partners, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Federal Flood Commission (FFC) has developed a draft ‘National Water Conservation Strategy.’ This strategy has been developed in consultation with the stakeholders at the provincial, national and international levels. It covers three major sectors of water use, i.e., agriculture, domestic and industry with a major focus on improving water governance. It provides short-term and medium-term strategies with a clearly defined role and responsibilities of various stakeholders. Moreover, it provides evidence-based success stories/pilot projects that have been implemented within the country and abroad.
Pakistan also has to fulfil certain international obligations such as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 by all UN Member States was built on the unfinished agenda of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Earlier, Pakistan, along with many other developing countries, failed to achieve the MDGs mainly due to lack of understanding about the MDGs, lack of institutional capacity, and commitment. The same is true for the SDGs where Pakistan, so far, is far away for setting appropriate baselines, realistic targets and allocating appropriate resources.4
According to Sachs et al (2020), Pakistan has secured a score of 56.17 under SDGs’ global index in 2020 and was ranked 134th on the SDG index of 157 nations. In this index, Bangladesh and India secured 109th and 117th positions, respectively. Meeting the SDGs in general and water goals in particular will require considerable efforts in improving the water governance. The United Nations University (UNU) has identified six critical components to address these issues which include capacity, finance, policy and institutions, gender, disaster risk reduction/resilience and integrity. In fact, these six components provide an essence for good governance and link policies with institutions, their capacity and the end users.5
Presently, the country is facing a number of quantitative and qualitative issues in the water sector. These issues are increasing with time due to looming climate change and rising water demand of an ever-increasing population. The SDG 6 and all of its targets are very much relevant to Pakistan. Agriculture sector uses over 93% of the country’s freshwater resources which has created an imbalance of use among other sectors such as domestic, industry and environment. It is essential to maintain the quality of natural water resources, thereby reducing the costs on water quality management and treatment. This would help ensure safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all. However, these goals are huge and cannot be achieved using the conventional approaches. To help achieve the goals that are aligned with human development indices and economic growth, three fundamental elements must be kept in mind, i.e., proper understanding of the goals, their targets and indicators as well as their enabling elements; evolvement of proper planning processes with active participation of all the stakeholders, right from the policymakers to the end users; and holistic thinking and integrated efforts from all sectors to first set realistic goals and allocate resources accordingly.
One of the most important but neglected stakeholders in the water governance is the increasing population. The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC has specifically identified high population growth as a “key impediment” to reaching the critical target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. With the current population rate, nearly five million people get added each year due to which water, food, fiber, housing and transport requirements increase exponentially making a direct impact on the climate change, water and the food security.
The Way Forward
Overall, the country’s water issues are complex and multifaceted with climate change aggravating the situation. The current water governance system needs radical changes to make the country water and food secure. To help improve the situation, instead of piecemeal and isolated efforts, the country requires integrated and holistic approaches, which are possible with improved governance.
The following suggestions may help improve water governance:
▪ There is need to realize that climate change is a reality and has dire consequences for water resources, food security and overall economic and social wellbeing of the country. Climate change is a long-term process and requires long-term holistic and integrated planning. Therefore, instead of having a reactive approach, a proactive approach needs to be adopted.
▪ Meetings of the NWC and SC should be convened at regular intervals. This would help review progress of various sectors and the provinces, identify bottlenecks in achieving the targets and resetting or realigning the targets.
▪ The National Water Conservation Strategy, recently developed by PCRWR in consultation with all major stakeholders, needs to be approved and circulated with proper monitoring and evaluation mechanism.
▪ Policies, plans and strategies are worthless if they are not transformed into action. There is a need to establish a strong monitoring and evaluation cell at the appropriate level to see what has been achieved, what not and why. This would help revise the policies and strategies as appropriate.
▪ Horizontal expansion of cities and towns should be controlled as this leads to encroachment of agricultural lands, groundwater recharging zones and forest lands. Appropriate legislation needs to be enacted to protect the ecosystems from deterioration as a result of poor land use.
▪ Increasing population has and would have serious repercussions for socioeconomic conditions, water and food security of the country. Moreover, it is one of the main triggers for climate change. Therefore, a program of population control should be launched at the national and provincial levels involving all the stakeholders, including religious leaders who can play a major role in creating due awareness.
▪ Currently, there are a number of water-related institutes working at the national level. Most of these are working at sub-optimal level with a lot of duplication in work. All water-related institutions should be placed under one umbrella for better coordination and avoiding such duplication.
The author is Chairman of Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. Climate Change 2022 Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Working Group II Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. final_ipcc_ar6_wgii_summaryforpolicymakers.pdf.
2. Qureshi, R.H., Ashraf M. (2019). Water Security Issues of Agriculture in Pakistan. Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), Islamabad, Pakistan, pp. 41.
3. Ashraf M., Bhatti A. Z., Zakaullah. (2012). Diagnostic analysis and fine tuning of skimming well design and operational strategies for sustainable groundwater management-Indus basin of Pakistan. International Journal of Irrigation and Drainage 61: 270-282.
4. Fatima B., Hasan F.U., Ashraf. (2022). Sustainable Development Goal 6.0 Policy Support System (PSS). Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Islamabad, pp 27.
5. Sachs, J., Schmidt-Traub, G., Kroll, C., Lafortune, G., Fuller, G., Woelm, F. (2020). The Sustainable Development Goals and COVID-19. Sustainable Development Report 2020. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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